Opportunities from a new disease for an old threat: Extending COVID-19 efforts to address tuberculosis in South Africa

By M Loveday, H Cox,  Dr. Denise Evans  J Furin, N Ndjeka, M Osman, K Naidoo,  |  | 

The COVID-19 pandemic and phased nationwide lockdown have impacted negatively on individuals with tuberculosis (TB) and routine TB services. Through a literature review and the perspective of members of a national TB Think Tank task team, we describe the impact of the pandemic and lockdown on TB patients and services as well as the potential long-term setback to TB control in South Africa (SA). Strategies to mitigate risk and impact are explored, together with opportunities to leverage synergies from both diseases to the benefit of the National TB Programme (NTP). With the emergence of COVID-19, activities to address this new pandemic have been prioritised
across all sectors. Within the health system, the health workforce and resources have been redirected away from routine services towards the new disease priority. The social determinants of health have deteriorated during the lockdown, potentially increasing progression to TB disease and impacting negatively on people with TB and their households, resulting in additional barriers to accessing TB care, with early reports of a decline in TB testing rates. Fewer TB diagnoses, less attention to adherence and support during TB treatment, poorer treatment outcomes and consequent increased transmission will increase the TB burden and TB-related mortality. People with TB or a history of TB are likely to be vulnerable to COVID-19. Modifications to current treatment practices are suggested to reduce visits to health facilities and minimise the risks of COVID-19 exposure. The COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to negatively impact on TB control in TB-endemic settings such as SA. However, there are COVID-19-related health systems-strengthening developments that may help the NTP mitigate the impact of the pandemic on TB control. By integrating TB case finding into the advanced screening, testing, tracing and monitoring systems established for COVID-19, TB case finding and linkage to care could increase, with many more TB patients starting treatment. Similarly, integrating knowledge and awareness of TB into the increased healthcare worker and community education on infectious respiratory diseases, behavioural practices around infection prevention and control, and cough etiquette, including destigmatisation of mask use, may contribute to reducing TB transmission. However, these potential gains could be overwhelmed by the impact of increasing poverty and other social determinants of health on the burden of TB.

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